Wildfire potential, June through September

(Originally published at 1:27 p.m. MDT June 1, 2018)

On June 1 the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for June through September. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If their analysis is correct, in July the areas with the highest potential will move from the Southwest to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Western Montana, California, and northern Nevada.

Below are:

  • The highlights of the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
  • NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
  • NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts; and,
  • Drought Monitor.

“Preexisting drought conditions along with continued drier than average conditions across the Southwest allowed for a normal progression of the western fire season across the Four Corners Region and West Texas in May. By month’s end, the focus of activity began to shift westward into Arizona and Southern California. Northern Minnesota and North Dakota experienced above average fire activity as drought conditions took hold. Alaska experienced a slight uptick in fire activity as fuels began to dry. However, the occurrence of periodic precipitation events allowed for a gradual entry into its fire season. Concerning precipitation trends were emerging across California, Oregon, and Washington as most locations received 50 percent of average precipitation or less during May. In the East, many locations across the Southeast, including Florida, received more than 300 percent of average precipitation during the month.

“The combination of deepening drought and the carryover of fine fuels from 2017 is expected to lead to a continuance of Above Normal Significant Large Fire Potential across western portions of the Four Corners Region and Southern California during June. Late June through early July are the peak of fire season across the Southwest and Alaska. During July, activity begins to spread west and north with the drying and curing of the fuels. The Southwestern monsoon begins and reduces fire activity across the Southwest while wetter patterns across Alaska become better established through the month thus drawing its season to a close. These climatologically normal transitions are expected to occur this year as the Western fire season begins to expand and intensify northward.

“Areas of heightened concern will be locations shown on the maps to the left that have both a significant carryover of fine fuels from 2017 and a normal growth of fine fuels this year. In addition, winter snowpack in the higher elevations along the West Coast was well below average, except in Washington State where it was near normal. However, a drier than average spring may offset the average snowpack and melting rates. This should allow for fuels in the mountains to become critically dry by mid-late July. Further inland, the Northern Rockies experienced a very snowy winter, and snowpack is melting at an average rate. However, a wet spring has promoted the growth of a very healthy, continuous crop of fine fuels that should become receptive to fire in the lower and middle elevations by mid to late July.

“August is the peak of the Western fire season. Seasonal transitions focus the fire activity over the northwestern quarter of the country, though California also continues to experience significant activity. With significant carryover of fine fuels from last year and average grass crop growth this year, elevated fire potential is expected through August and early September across many of the lower and middle elevations from the central Great Basin and California northward to the Canadian border. Higher elevations in the mountains may also see elevated fire potential as well should warmer and drier than average conditions develop as expected.

“Typically, a weather event occurs in mid-September that brings moisture to regions experiencing significant fire activity which allows for the western fire season to begin to decrease in activity. Anticipated trends in long range weather data suggests this to be the case this September as ENSO Neutral conditions begin to shift toward El Niño for the fall and winter months.”

wildfire potential outlook map July

wildfire potential outlook map August

Continue reading “Wildfire potential, June through September”

Briefing for members of Congress about the outlook for wildfires

Several Senators and Representatives expressed concern that there would not be enough air tankers available this year.

wildfire outlook 2018
Interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, briefs members of Congress about the 2018 wildfire season. Screenshot from the video below.

On Thursday the Departments of Interior and Agriculture briefed members of Congress about the outlook for wildfires in 2018.

There was a lot of talk about being more aggressive about attacking fires, firefighting aircraft, forest health, dead trees, logging, and reducing fuels in forests.

In response to a question by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell about expanding the use of drones on fires, the Secretaries of the two Departments announced that they would sign an agreement to more easily share resources and technology between the two Departments, including drones.

wildfires drones congressional briefing
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell asks a question about expanding the use of drones on wildfires. Screenshot from the video below.

During her prepared remarks, Interim Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen said the Forest Service had “hundreds of aircraft ready to respond” to fires. The fact is, in addition to helicopters, in 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts. This year there are 13, with another 11 on call when needed (CWN) agreements plus one HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft outfitted with a temporary MAFFS tank. The Forest Service wants to get rid of the Coast Guard HC-130H currently being used and the other six that Congress directed them and the Air Force to convert to air tankers.

Randy Eardley, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, told us today that no EU contracts for Single Engine Air Tankers have been awarded yet this year, but there is an existing CWN contract for SEATs which will be used. It is unlikely that an EU contract will be awarded, for the second year in a row. Before 2017 there were typically 33 SEATs on EU contracts every year. Approximately 10 have been working on a CWN basis in Texas and the Southwest during the last month or two.

A few of the politicians at the briefing criticized the reduction in the number of air tankers. At 16:00 in the video, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden expressed his concern.

Last week we were hearing in rural Oregon that there wouldn’t be enough air tankers on exclusive use contracts at the Forest Service…. What is the Service doing to ensure that the all call when needed air tankers are going to be there in terms of these fires.

Ms. Christiansen responded to the Senator:

Senator Wyden, I can assure you we will have the same number of large air tankers, 25, available to us on contract or agency operated. That’s in addition to the specialty that the Department of Interior provides in Single Engine Air Tankers and then we all have a selection of rotary helicopter resources. So we are confident in our ability to field the large air tankers and the other aviation assets. As I said before, we are always evaluating the mix of exclusive use and call when needed. Call when needed can be available within 30 minutes but often certainly within a couple of hours. And our predictive services I have great confidence in that we will bring those call when needed resources on as we anticipate the need expanding. It all happens out of our Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Call when needed contracts for large air tankers specify that the aircraft should be able to be activated within 48 hours. And it is not as simple as a dispatcher making a phone call to the vendor, it must be handled by a contracting officer. But after being activated, they can remain in that status for an extended period of time, even if it is raining, and be subject to the same dispatch standards as exclusive use aircraft.

The quality of the video and audio below is very poor, but at least 90 percent of the audio is comprehensible.

The article was revised to clarify that while it is unlikely that an exclusive use contract will be awarded this year for SEATs, an existing call when needed contract can be used.